One of the finest Iyric poets in the English language, the American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) wasa keen observer of nature and a wise interpreter of human passion. Her family and friends published most of her work posthumously.
American poetry in the 19th century was rich and varied, ranging from the symbolic fantasies of Edgar Allan Poe through the moralistic quatrains of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to the revolutionary free verse of Walt Whitman. In the privacy of her study Emily Dickinson developed her own forms and pursued her own visions, oblivious of literary fashions and unconcerned with the changing national literature. If she was influenced at all by other writers, they were John Keats, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Isaac Watts (his hymns), and the biblical prophets.
Dickinson was born on Dec. 10, 1830, in Amherst, Mass., the eldest daughter of Edward Dickinson, a successful lawyer, member of Congress, and for many years treasurer of Amherst College, and of Emily Norcross Dickinson, a submissive, timid woman. The Dickinsons' only son, William Austin, also a lawyer, succeeded his father as treasurer of the college. Their youngest child, Lavinia, was the chief housekeeper and, like her sister Emily, remained at home, unmarried, all her life. The sixth member of this tightly knit group was Susan Gilbert, an ambitious and witty schoolmate of Emily's, who married Austin in 1856 and moved into the house next door to the Dickinsons. At first she was Emily's confidante and a valued critic of her poetry, but by 1879 Emily was speaking of her "pseudo-sister" and had long since ceased exchanging notes and poems.
Amherst in the 1840s was a sleepy village in the lush Connecticut Valley, dominated by the Church and the college. Dickinson was reared in Trinitarian Congregationalism, but she never joined the Church and probably chafed at the austerity of the town. Concerts were rare; card games, dancing, and theater were unheard of. For relaxation she walked the hills with her dog, visited friends, and read. But it is also obvious that Puritan New England bred in her a sharp eye for local color, a love of introspection and self-analysis, and a fortitude that sustained her through years of intense loneliness.
Dickinson graduated from Amherst Academy in 1847. The following year (the longest time she was ever to spend away from home) she attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary at South Hadley, but because of her fragile health she did not return. At the age of 17 she settled into the Dickinson home and turned herself into a competent housekeeper and a more than ordinary observer of Amherst life.
It is not known when Dickinson began to write poetry or what happened to the poems of her early youth. Only five poems can be dated prior to 1858, the year in which she began gathering her work into hand-written fair copies bound loosely with looped thread to make small packets. She sent these five early poems to friends in letters or as valentines, and one of them was published anonymously without her permission in the Springfield Republican (Feb. 20, 1852). After 1858 she apparently convinced herself she had a genuine talent, for now the packets were carefully stored in an ebony box, awaiting inspection by future readers or even by a publisher.
Publication, however, was not easily arranged. After Dickinson besieged her friend Samuel Bowles, editor of the Republican, with poems and letters for 4 years, he published two poems, both anonymously: "I taste a liquor never brewed" (May 4, 1861) and "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers" (March 1, 1862). And the first of these was edited, probably by Bowles, to regularize (and thus, flatten) the rhymes and the punctuation. Dickinson began the poem: "I taste a liquor never brewed—/From Tankards scooped in Pearl—/Not all the Frankfort Berries/Yield such an Alcohol." But Bowles printed: "I taste a liquor never brewed,/From tankards scooped in pearl;/Not Frankfort berries yield the sense/Such a delicious whirl." She used no title; Bowles titled it "The May-Wine." (Only seven poems were published during her lifetime, and all had been altered by editors.)
Friendship with T. W. Higginson
In 1862 Dickinson turned to the literary critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson for advice about her poems. She had known him only through his essays in the Atlantic Monthly, but in time he became, in her words, her "preceptor" and eventually her "safest friend." She began her first letter to him by asking, "Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?" Six years later she was bold enough to say, "You were not aware that you saved my life." They did not meet until 1870, at her urging, surprisingly, and only once more after that. Higginson told his wife, after the first meeting, "I was never with anyone who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her."
What Dickinson was seeking was assurance as well as advice, and Higginson apparently gave it without knowing it, through a correspondence that lasted the rest of her life. He advised against publishing, but he also kept her abreast of the literary world (indeed, of the outside world, since as early as 1868, she was writing him, "I do not cross my father's ground to any house or town"). He helped her not at all with what mattered most to her—establishing her own private poetic method—but he was a friendly ear and a congenial mentor during the most troubled years of her life. Out of her inner turmoil came rare lyrics in a form that Higginson never really understood—if he had, he would not have tried to "edit" them, either in the 1860s or after her death. Dickinson could not take his "surgery," as she called it, but she took his friendship willingly.
Years of Emotional Crisis
Between 1858 and 1866 Dickinson wrote more than 1100 poems, full of aphorisms, paradoxes, off rhymes, and eccentric grammar. Few are more than 16 lines long, composed in meters based on English hymnology. The major subjects are love and separation, death, nature, and God—but especially love. When she writes "My life closed twice before its close," one can only guess who her real or fancied lovers might have been. Higginson was not one of them. It is more than likely that her first "dear friend" was Benjamin Newton, a young man too poor to marry, who had worked for a few years in her father's law office. He left Amherst for Worcester and died there in 1853.
During a visit to Philadelphia a year later Dickinson met the Reverend Charles Wadsworth. Sixteen years her senior, a brilliant preacher, already married, he was hardly more than a mental image of a lover. There is no doubt she made him this, but nothing more. He visited her once in 1860. When he moved to San Francisco in May 1862, she was in despair. Only a month before, Samuel Bowles had sailed for Europe to recover his health. Little wonder that in her first letter to Higginson she said, "I had a terror … —and so I sing as the Boy does by the Burying Ground—because I am afraid." She needed love, but she had to indulge this need through her poems, perhaps because she felt she could cope with it no other way.
When Bowles returned to Amherst in November, Dickinson was so overwhelmed she remained in her bedroom and sent a note down, " … That you return to us alive is better than a summer, and more to hear your voice below than news of any bird." By the time Wadsworth returned from California in 1870 and resettled in Philadelphia, the crisis was over. His second visit, in 1880, was anticlimax. Higginson had not saved her life; her life was never in danger. What had been in danger was her emotional equilibrium and her control over a talent that was so intense it longed for the eruptions that might have destroyed it.
In the last 2 decades of her life Dickinson wrote fewer than 50 poems a year, perhaps because of continuing eye trouble, more probably because she had to take increasing responsibility in running the household. Her father died in 1874, and a year later her mother suffered a paralyzing stroke that left her an invalid until her death. There was little time for poetry, not even for serious consideration of marriage (if it was actually proffered) with a widower and old family friend, Judge Otis Lord. Their love was genuine, but once again the timing was wrong. It was too late to recast her life completely. Her mother died in 1882, Judge Lord 2 years later. Dickinson's health failed noticeably after a nervous collapse in 1884, and on May 15, 1886, she died of nephritis.
How the complete poems of Dickinson were finally gathered is a publishing saga almost too complicated for brief summary. Lavinia Dickinson inherited the ebony box; she asked Mabel Loomis Todd, the wife of an Amherst astronomy professor, to join Higginson in editing the manuscripts. Unfortunately, they felt even then that they had to alter the syntax, smooth the rhymes, cut some lines, and create titles for each poem. Three volumes appeared in quick succession: 1890, 1891, and 1896. In 1914 Dickinson's niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, published some of the poems her mother, Susan, had saved. In the next 3 decades four more volumes appeared, the most important being Bolts of Melody (1945), edited by Mrs. Todd and her daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, from the manuscripts the Todds had never returned to Lavinia Dickinson. In 1955 Thomas H. Johnson prepared for Harvard University Press a three-volume edition, chronologically arranged, of "variant readings critically compared with all known manuscripts." Here, for the first time, the reader saw the poems as Dickinson had left them. The Johnson text of the 1,775 extant poems is now the standard one.
It is clear that Dickinson could not have written to please publishers, who were not ready to risk her striking aphoristic style and original metaphors. She had the right to educate the public, as Poe and Whitman eventually did, but she never had the invitation. Had she published during her lifetime, adverse public criticism might have driven her into deeper solitude, even silence. "If fame belonged to me," she told Higginson, "I could not escape her; if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase … My barefoot rank is better." The 20th century has lifted her without doubt to the first rank among poets.
Thomas H. Johnson edited The Letters of Emily Dickinson (3 vols., 1958). His three-volume variorum edition of her poems (1955) was followed by a one-volume The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (1960) and a selection of 575 poems, Final Harvest (1961).
The best of the early biographies of Emily Dickinson is George Whicher, This Was a Poet: A Critical Biography of Emily Dickinson (1938). It has been superseded by Richard Chase, Emily Dickinson (1951); Thomas H. Johnson, Emily Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography (1955); and David Higgins, Portrait of Emily Dickinson: The Poet and Her Prose (1967). Jay Leyda, The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson (2 vols., 1960), is a valuable source book.
There are numerous critical studies. The best general appreciation is Charles R. Anderson, Emily Dickinson's Poetry: Stairway of Surprise (1960). More recent studies are Clark Griffith, The Long Shadow: Emily Dickinson's Tragic Poetry (1964); Albert J. Gelpi, Emily Dickinson: The Mind of the Poet (1965); Ruth Miller, The Poetry of Emily Dickinson (1968); and William R. Sherwood, Circumference and Circumstance: Stages in the Mind and Art of Emily Dickinson (1968). Richard B. Sewall edited Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays (1963). Equally useful is Cesar R. Blake and Carlton F. Wells, eds., The Recognition of Emily Dickinson: Selected Criticism since 1890 (1964).
Emily Dickinson's place in the history of American poetry is well established in Roy Harvey Pearce, The Continuity of American Poetry (1961), and Hyatt H. Waggoner, American Poets from the Puritans to the Present (1968). □
Born: December 10, 1830
Died: May 15, 1886
American poet and author
One of the finest poets in the English language, the American poet Emily Dickinson was a keen observer of nature and a wise interpreter of human passion. In the privacy of her study, Dickinson developed her own forms of poetry and pursued her own visions, not paying attention to the fashions of literature of her day. Most of her work was published by her family and friends after her death.
Early life and education
Emily Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts, the oldest daughter of Edward Dickinson, a successful lawyer, member of Congress, and for many years treasurer of Amherst College, and of Emily Norcross Dickinson, a timid woman. Dickinson was fun-loving as a child, very smart, and enjoyed the company of others. Her brother, Austin, became a lawyer like his father and was also treasurer of Amherst College. The youngest child of the family, Lavinia, became the chief housekeeper and, like her sister Emily, remained at home all her life and never married. The sixth member of this tightly knit group was Susan Gilbert, Emily's ambitious and witty schoolmate who married Austin in 1856 and who moved into the house next door to the Dickinsons. At first she was Emily's very close friend and a valued critic of her poetry, but by 1879 Emily was speaking of her as a "pseudo-sister" (false sister) and had long since stopped exchanging notes and poems.
Amherst in the 1840s was a sleepy village dominated by religion and the college. Dickinson was not religious and probably did not like some elements of the town—concerts were rare, and card games, dancing, and theater were unheard of. For relaxation she walked the hills with her dog, visited friends, and read.
Dickinson graduated from Amherst Academy in 1847. The following year (the longest time she was ever to spend away from home) she attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, but because of her fragile health she did not return. At the age of seventeen she settled into the Dickinson home and turned herself into a housekeeper and a more than ordinary observer of Amherst life.
It is not known when Dickinson began to write poetry or what happened to the poems of her early youth. Only five poems can be dated before 1858, the year in which she began gathering her work into handwritten copies bound loosely with thread to make small packets. She sent these five early poems to friends in letters or as valentines. After 1858 she apparently convinced herself she had a genuine talent, for now her poems were carefully stored in a box for the possibility of inspection by future readers or even a publisher.
Publication, however, was not easily arranged. For four years Dickinson sent her friend Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican, many poems and letters. He published two poems, both without her name given as the author. And the first of these was edited, probably by Bowles, to make regular (and thus flatten) the rhymes and the punctuation. (Only seven poems were published during her lifetime, with editors altering all of them.)
Friendship with T. W. Higginson
In 1862 Dickinson turned to the literary critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson for advice about her poems. In time he became, in her words, her "safest friend." She began her first letter to him by asking, "Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?" Six years later she was bold enough to say, "You were not aware that you saved my life." They did not meet until 1870—at her request, surprisingly—and only once more after that.
What Dickinson was seeking was assurance as well as advice, and Higginson apparently gave it without knowing it, through the letters they sent to each other the rest of her life. He helped her not at all with what mattered most to her—establishing her own private poetic method—but he was a friendly ear and mentor during the most troubled years of her life. Out of her inner troubles came rare poems in a form that Higginson never really understood.
Years of emotional crisis
Between 1858 and 1866 Dickinson wrote more than eleven hundred poems, full of off-rhymes and odd grammar. Few poems are more than sixteen lines long. The major subjects are love and separation, death, nature, and God—but especially love. When she writes "My life closed twice before its close," one can only guess who her real or imagined lovers might have been. Higginson was not one of them. It is more than likely that her first "dear friend" was Benjamin Newton, a young man too poor to marry who had worked for a few years in her father's law office.
During a visit to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1855, Dickinson met the Reverend Charles Wadsworth. Sixteen years older than her, a brilliant preacher, and already married, he was hardly more than a mental image of a lover. There is no doubt she made him this, but nothing more. He visited her once in 1860. When he moved to San Francisco, California, in May 1862, she was in despair. Only a month before, Samuel Bowles had sailed for Europe for health reasons. She needed love, but she had to satisfy this need through her poems, perhaps because she felt she could deal with it no other way.
When Bowles returned to Amherst in November, the emotion Dickinson felt was so great that she remained in her bedroom and sent down a note: "That you return to us alive is better than a summer, and more to hear your voice below than news of any bird." By the time Wadsworth returned from California in 1870, the crisis was over. Higginson had not saved her life; her life was never in danger. What had been in danger was her emotional balance and her control over her intense talent.
In the last two decades of Dickinson's life, she wrote fewer than fifty poems a year, perhaps because of continuing eye trouble, but more probably because she had to take more responsibility in running the household. Her father died in 1874, and a year later her mother suffered a stroke that left her disabled until her death in 1882. Dickinson's health failed noticeably after a nervous collapse in 1884, and on May 15, 1886, she died.
It is clear that Dickinson could not have written to please publishers, who were not ready to risk her striking style and originality. Had she published during her lifetime, negative public criticism might have driven her to an even more solitary state of existence, even to silence. "If fame belonged to me," she told Higginson, "I could not escape her; if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase.… My barefoot rank is better." The twentieth century lifted her without doubt to the first rank among poets.
For More Information
Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books. New York: Random House, 2001.
Olsen, Victoria. Emily Dickinson. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.
Sewall, Richard Benson. The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. Emily Dickinson. New York: Knopf, 1986.
For her originality, range, and emotional depth, Emily Dickinson is now among the most universally admired and extensively studied American poets.
Born on December 10, 1830, Dickinson lived her entire life in Amherst, Massachusetts . Her father, Edward Dickinson, was a prosperous lawyer who served as treasurer of Amherst College and held various political offices. Her mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, was a quiet and frail woman.
After attending primary school, Dickinson studied at Amherst Academy from 1840 to 1847, before spending a year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Following the completion of her education, Dickinson lived at home with her parents and younger sister, Lavinia. Her older brother, Austin, and his wife, Susan, lived next door.
Poetry and withdrawal
Details of Dickinson's life are vague. Scholars believe that she first began writing poetry seriously in the early 1850s. Biographers speculate that during a trip to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania , in the 1850s or 1860s, Dickinson fell in love with a married minister, the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, and that her disappointment in love caused her later withdrawal from society. Whatever the cause, Dickinson spent most of her time in the following years at home or on long solitary walks.
Biographers generally agree that Dickinson experienced an emotional crisis of an undetermined nature in the early 1860s. Her distressed state of mind is believed to have inspired her to write a great deal. In 1862 alone, she is thought to have composed more than three hundred poems. In that year, Dickinson started to write to and receive letters from Thomas Higginson (1823–1911), the literary editor of the Atlantic Monthly magazine. During the course of their lengthy exchange, Dickinson sent nearly one hundred of her poems for his criticism. While Higginson had little influence on her writing, he was important to her as a sympathetic adviser.
Dickinson's refusal to leave her home or to meet visitors and her habit of always wearing white garments earned her a reputation for eccentricity (oddity). Her isolation further increased when her father died unexpectedly in 1874 and she was left with the care of her invalid mother. The death of her mother in 1882 contributed to the beginning of what Dickinson described as an “attack of nerves.” In 1886, she was diagnosed as having Bright's disease, a kidney dysfunction that resulted in her death on May 15 of that year.
Discovery and publication of her poems
Only seven of Dickinson's poems were published during her lifetime, all anonymously and some apparently without her consent. The editors of the magazines in which her poems appeared made significant changes to them in an attempt to regularize the meter and grammar, thereby discouraging Dickinson from seeking further publication of her verse. Therefore, her poems found only a private audience among the people she wrote letters to, her family, and old school friends.
Even her family was unaware of the enormous quantity of verse that she composed. After Dickinson's death, her sister Lavinia was astounded to discover hundreds of poems among her possessions. Despite the disordered state of the manuscripts, Lavinia Dickinson was determined to publish her sister's poetry. She turned to Higginson and editor Mabel Loomis Todd (1858–1932), a friend of the Dickinson family, for assistance.
In 1890, Poems of Emily Dickinson appeared. Even though most initial reviews were highly unfavorable, the work went through eleven editions in two years. Encouraged by the popular acceptance of Poems, Todd edited and published two later collections of Dickinson's verse in the 1890s, as well as a two-volume selection of her letters. Over the next fifty years, more previously unprinted poems continued to appear in new collections. It was not until 1955 that Dickinson's complete poems—nearly eighteen hundred poems—were collected and published together in one text.
A distinctive style
Dickinson's poems were in the form of brief lyrics, often of only one or two quatrains (a group of four lines of verse), and few of them were titled. In her verse, Dickinson explores various subjects: nature, death, immortality, love and loss, and fame. Drawing on imagery from biblical sources, particularly from the Book of Revelation, and from the works of English writers such as dramatist William Shakespeare (1564–1616), poet John Keats (1795–1821), and poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861), Dickinson developed a highly personal system of symbol and allusion (indirect reference), assigning complex meanings to colors, places, times, and seasons. Her tone in the poems ranges widely, from wry humor to anguished self-examination, from flirtatious puzzles to childlike openness.
The language in Dickinson's poems incorporates New England slang, religious and scientific terminology, and out-of-date words. The meters of her poems are often adapted from the rhythms of English hymns or nursery rhymes. Her rhyme and tonal harmony did not conform to the usual rules of poetry of her day. She employed quirky capitalization and punctuation. Many aspects of Dickinson's style distinguish her poetry from the mainstream of nineteenth-century American verse.
Most nineteenth-century critics viewed Dickinson's poetry with a combination of disapproval and bewilderment, objecting to her disregard for convention. By the turn of the century, despite her enthusiastic popular following, Dickinson was still regarded as a sentimental poet of minor importance.
After the publication of her complete poems in 1955, however, numerous studies of her works followed, leading to her acceptance by writers and academics as a master poet. Dickinson is now studied in high schools and colleges throughout the English-speaking world. As author Joyce Carol Oates (1938–) wrote in a Critical Inquiry article entitled “‘Soul at the White Heat’: The Romance of Emily Dickinson's Poetry,” “Here is an American artist of words as inexhaustible as Shakespeare, as vigorously skillful in her craft as Yeats, a poet whom we can set with confidence beside the greatest poets of modern times.”
Emily Dickinson, 1830–86, American poet, b. Amherst, Mass. She is widely considered one of the greatest poets in American literature. Her unique, gemlike lyrics are distillations of profound feeling and original intellect that stand outside the mainstream of 19th-century American literature.
Dickinson spent almost all her life in her birthplace. Her father was a prominent lawyer who was active in civic affairs. His three children (Emily; a son, Austin; and another daughter, Lavinia) thus had the opportunity to meet many distinguished visitors. Emily Dickinson attended Amherst Academy irregularly for six years and Mount Holyoke Seminary for one, and in those years lived a normal life filled with friendships, parties, church, and housekeeping. Before she was 30, however, she began to withdraw from village activities and gradually ceased to leave home at all. While she corresponded with many friends, she eventually stopped seeing them. She often fled from visitors and eventually lived as a virtual recluse in her father's house. As a mature woman, she was intense and sensitive and was exhausted by emotional contact with others.
Even before her withdrawal from the world Dickinson had been writing poetry, and her creative peak seems to have been reached in the period from 1858 to 1862. She was encouraged by the critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson, her chosen reader and an advocate who may never have fully comprehended her genius but who, through their considerable correspondence, helped make her aware of events in the world beyond Amherst, and by Helen Hunt Jackson, who believed she was a great poet. Nonetheless, Dickinson published only seven poems during her lifetime. Her mode of existence, although circumscribed, was evidently satisfying, even essential, to her. After her death in 1886, Lavinia Dickinson discovered over 1,000 poems in her sister's bureau. For too long Dickinson was treated less as a serious artist than as a romantic figure who had renounced the world after a disappointment in love. This legend, based on conjecture, distortion, and even fabrication, has plagued even some of her modern biographers.
While Dickinson wrote love poetry that indicates a strong attachment, it has proved impossible to know the object of her feelings, or even how much was fed by her poetic imagination. The chief tension in her work comes from a different source: her inability to accept the orthodox religious faith of her day and her longing for its spiritual comfort. Immortality she called "the flood subject," and she alternated confident statements of belief with lyrics of despairing uncertainty that were both reverent and rebellious. Her verse, noted for its aphoristic style, its wit, its delicate metrical variation and irregular rhymes, its directness of statement, and its bold and startling imagery, has won enormous acclaim and had a great influence on 20th-century poetry.
Dickinson's posthumous fame began when Mabel Loomis Todd and Higginson edited and published two volumes of poems (1890, 1891) and some of her correspondence (2 vol., 1894). Other editions of verse followed, many of which were marred by unskillful and unnecessary editing. A definitive edition of her works did not appear until the 1950s, when T. H. Johnson published her poems (3 vol., 1955) and letters (3 vol., 1958); only then was serious study of her work possible. Dickinson scholarship was further advanced by R. W. Franklin's variorum edition of her poetry (3 vol., 1998).
See also R. W. Franklin, ed., Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson (1981) and Master Letters of Emily Dickinson (1986). Valuable biographies of Dickinson those by G. F. Wicher (1938, repr. 1980), M. T. Bingham (1954 and 1955, repr. 1967), J. Leyda (2 vol., 1960, repr. 1970), R. B. Sewall (2 vol., 1974), C. G. Wolff (1986), and A. Habegger (2001). Among the many studies of Dickinson are those by C. R. Anderson (1960), A. J. Gelpi (1965), D. J. M. Higgins (1967), W. R. Sherwood (1968), S. Wolosky (1984), B. L. St. Armand (1986), J. Farr (1992), B. Wineapple (2008), L. Gordon (2010), and H. Vendler (2010).
Dickinson, Emily Elizabeth